Art, to me, is watching a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man rocking in a rocking chair for 56 minutes. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll get exactly that at this year’s Perth Fringe World, in A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes and Then Leaves. Those walking away disappointed only have themselves to blame.
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are more than 700 other shows from which to choose. Since 2014, Fringe World has nearly doubled the number of events, more than doubled attendance (up to 857,000), and quadrupled its box office (up to $12.1m).
Bigger is better sounds like a winning strategy for the organisation, but it’s not necessarily so for artists, for whom the biggest problem is bums on seats. Anyone who has tried running the main-street gauntlet of flyering artists at festival time can attest to a perceptible level of desperation. Their fears are well-founded: average attendance at Fringe World in 2019 was 59% of capacity per session, up 2% from 2018 yet down from 2017’s figure of 63%. The fact is, for many artists facing a nearly two-fifths empty audience each night would be a best-case scenario.
Artists at the forthcoming Adelaide fringe face a similar dilemma. It’s doubled its volume of shows and box office over the last decade – now at 1200 and $19.5 million respectively. But 40% of 2018 shows sold fewer than 100 tickets across their seasons, and 20% of all shows sold fewer than 50.
With the average ticket in Perth increasing by nearly $10 to $32.25 since 2014, punters have reason to be selective. So how can comedians, cabaret and circus acts, who may have to spend thousands of dollars to put on a show and cover travel and accommodation, cut through?
Stand-up comedian and Triple J host Michael Hing, who has previously toured Michael Hing – Dressed as a Lobster for a Portion of the Evening, is no stranger to fighting for attention at fringe.
“Even if you feel like you’ve broken through one year, you won’t feel like you’ve broken through another year,” he says. “The next year, the work starts again.”
Hing describes the different methods acts use to stand out. The descriptive title and unambiguous hook is a popular one. A quick perusal of the attractions at Fringe World this year turns up 100 Years of the History of Dance as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes With an Energetic Group Finale, Melon the Human Attempts to Top His Last Show Which Got Him Into the Largest Circus in the World, I Was Birthed From an Egg in a Crater on Uranus, and so on.
Some game the system by seeking early placement on fringe’s alphabetically ordered website, like Aaaaaaaargh! It’s the Best of UK Fringe Comedy – though they didn’t account for the 20 numerically titled productions that would precede them.
Kieran Bullock will put his title to the test when he brings Kieran Bullock Builds IKEA Furniture and Talks to the Audience to Perth and Adelaide fringe following a run in Melbourne.
“People don’t necessarily remember me or remember my name, but they remember the hook of, ‘Oh yeah, a show where a man is building IKEA furniture on stage’,” he says.
He also champions the traditional method of relentless flyering at central hubs. As for what he’s planning to do with the furniture after each night, Bullock sees another marketing opportunity: “They might just end up on a roundabout somewhere with [my] poster stuck on them.”
Comedian Elizabeth Davie previously pierced the din at fringe, making news with her 2019 show Super Woman Money Program by offering women a 14.6% discount on tickets, a cheeky dig at the gender pay gap.
She now takes her wickedly grisly new piece, Apex Predator, from Perth to Adelaide. In it, her red-nosed clown alter ego Lucretia exacts bloody revenge on male predators, always with a wild smile.
“Three different reviews have described it as ‘not everyone’s cup of tea’,” she says. “I was like, ‘That’s an angle! That’s an angle I can use!’”
What’s most important for Davie – inspired to write Apex Predator based on her own experience with domestic violence – is finding a crowd that will appreciate it.
“Everything’s so uncertain about fringe, it’s always a bit of a gamble,” she says. “It would probably be good to think about the marketing stuff first, but I don’t. I usually make something and then go, ‘Okay, who would like this?’”
While Hing is largely putting these kinds of festivals behind him, he sees a benefit for artists at fringe, so long as they can work through the pain (and financial risk).
“Why do any of us do this?” he asks. The answer: “I think it makes you a better comedian.”
“If you’re in a room that seats 50 and only three people have turned up, you’ve got to really switch on and work to keep their attention. They’re like, ‘Why have we come to this? This person must be terrible, right?’ As a performer, you really discover your sink or swim instincts.”